It is no coincidence that your favorite gay characters can’t seem to catch a break. The death, suffering, and cliche coming-out story of queer characters are rooted in a dense history of rejection and stereotyping. The “Bury Your Gays” trope illustrates the literary pattern of killing off one or both partners in a same-sex relationship. Often, the surviving partner will go on to realize that their sexual confusion was merely that— confusion. After a sufficient amount of grief, a heterosexual partner will come to the rescue, bringing them out of their insanity to live a happy normal life.
Originally, queer folks utilized this tactic to include LGBTQ story lines without fear of backlash or loss of their career. Yet, nearly a century later, the trend persists in Western media. What began as a necessary evil has morphed into more subtle forms of homophobia. So the question is: why are queer characters still being killed or deemed incapable of happiness? In order to properly examine the legacy of the “Bury Your Gays” trope, we must take a few steps back.
The rise of the hays code
Beginning in the 1920s, religious groups and moral traditionalists campaigned for stricter government censorship of films. Paired with an abundance of Hollywood scandals, the movie industry was in dire need of rehabilitation. In response, Martin J. Quigley and Reverend Daniel A. Lord wrote a set of self-regulating guidelines. This code, which is often referred to as the “Hays Code”, dictated what was acceptable and unacceptable in the United States Motion Pictures. The Production Code Administration, headed by Joseph Breen, had to power to approve, reject or change films before release to the public.
Homosexuality was deemed as sexual perversion and deviance, therefore, falling under an “unacceptable” designation. Though the code was not strictly enforced until the mid-1930s, filmmakers were obligated to abide by this ruling to avoid mass boycotts led by the Catholic Church and Protestant groups. Consequently, queer filmmakers were forced to rely heavily on subtext and coded messages.
Rather than outwardly stating that a character was gay or gender non-conforming, they utilized derogatory stereotypes of villains and victims. Whether that meant a satirical display of “pansies” or imminent gruesome death, homosexual characters were sure to pay for their sin. This new normal set the precedent for generations to come.
The lavender scare
The Hays Code was not only a reflection of Christian ideology rooted in American society, but it was indicative of the changing political atmosphere. In the 1940s, McCarthyism played on citizens’ nostalgia to return to the heteronormative “American Way”. Throughout his anti-communism campaign, Joseph McCarthy villainized LGBTQ individuals in what is now referred to as the “Lavender Scare”.
McCarthy’s “House of Un-American Activities Committee” claimed that homosexuals’ “emotional instability” made them susceptible to foreign espionage and blackmail. The already paranoid public was taught to conflate homosexuality with communists who would give away United States secrets.
In 1953, Eisenhower fueled the gay purge by signing Executive Order 10450, which defined “sexual perversion” as a security risk. As a result, thousands of LGBTQ employees were fired from federal government positions, dismissed from the military, removed from their housing, and publicly humiliated.
The fall of the hays code
By the late 1950s and 1960s, the Hays Code gradually relinquished power. In the 1952 Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson case, films were granted First Amendment legal protections that were previously stripped away in 1915. With less need for approval, films began including more overt portrayals of homosexuality.
Finally, in 1968, the Hays Code came to an end. Though this was a large step for the industry, it wasn’t until the 1969 Stonewall Uprising and subsequent women’s /gay rights movements that laws and prejudices began to shift. With the rise of the HIV/AIDs pandemic and new Christian fundamentalist groups in politics, the narrative surrounding sexuality became prevalent in mainstream media.
As more and more films begin to depict homosexuality in an accurate and positive light, it appears easy to diminish the long-lasting effects of the Hays Code. Gay people are in movies now, so what’s the big deal?
Modern-day: “bury your Gays trope”
Unfortunately, there is no simple solution. The repeated portrayal of queer people as predatory, deviant and immoral individuals remains deeply ingrained in Western media. According to GLAAD’s “Still Invisible” report, only 19 (3%) of the 698 characters portrayed in primetime television in 2017 were queer. To add insult to injury, 6 (30%) of these characters were killed off. Another 6 (30%) were one-dimensional characters whose sole purpose was to further the storylines of straight characters. Of the 19 queer characters portrayed in primetime television, only 2 (.002%) had fully realized romantic relationships.
This extreme lack of representation affirms the notion that queer characters cannot exist in media without being tokenized or used to bolster straight narratives. Queer folks continue to crave representation. When our characters are limited to death and suffering, it sends a powerful message to the audience: There is something wrong with me. These portrayals further solidify the inescapable societal norms that tell us that we should be ashamed of our own existence.
We deserve to see fully-formed queer characters who are capable of experiencing joy and success. We deserve to see fictional queer relationships that are not offsets of the ‘sexual confusion’ of heterosexual characters. In seeing positive representations of queer people in movie theaters and on TV screens, we have the power to change the message for generations to come.